Thanks to his training and work as a biologist focussed on wild animals, Marc Stickler has the experience and knowledge to capture unique images in countless places around the world. He was recently able to try out the new Leica SL2-S for a few weeks in the steppes of Botswana. In this interview, the Austrian photographer spoke about his work in the wild and confronting related adversities – and how photography can be used as a tool to protect nature.
Was there a key moment that convinced you to work as a photographer?
I discovered a love of photography while I was researching sharks in The Bahamas, mountain gorillas in Uganda and chacma baboons in Botswana; and I wanted to express a connection with nature through my pictures. For my final year of research, I spent a year in a tent in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. As we tracked the baboons, we walked 12 to 13 kilometres a day – often alone and connected by just a radio that only worked sporadically. You need to focus your attention on the next tree, bush or water crossing because animals of the kind you want to avoid might be anywhere. We had to run away or climb trees to get away from Kaffir buffaloes, hippopotamuses and elephants on a number of occasions; as well as avoiding lions and snakes.
The camera was with me every single day. I learnt a lot that year: above all, what it means for your body to know renunciation and deprivation; and how to value and experience the positive moments, during intensely tough times. I am convinced that every person can be a teacher, and so I try to convey these values to my students at the University of Salzburg.
What kind of moments incite you to hit the shutter button?
It’s the beauty of nature expressed in so many facets. Sometimes what inspires me is a lovely natural pattern, a particular animal behaviour, a person’s smile, colours, waterfalls or a magical starry night sky. There are so many moments worthy of hitting the trigger – what matters is to stay in the here and now, and not just see life through the viewfinder.
Are there places where you especially like to take photographs?
I refer to the Okavango Delta in Botswana as my second home. It has become my goal to portray the fascinating beauty of this fragile ecosystem. I would also like to arouse awareness of the great danger to this natural spectacle, due to oil rigs, fracking and dams in Angola. I’m also very impressed by the vastness of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti, which offer special photographic conditions, whatever the season.
Photographing mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda is something special: Sigmund Freud once said that eyes are the windows to the soul – you can see and feel that very particularly in their case.
What has the biggest influence on your photography?
My emotional state at any given time is most important. I want my photography to trigger emotions in the viewer. If a person feels something when looking at my pictures, then half the race is won, so to speak; and if the beauty and uniqueness of the animals and nature then impel someone to become a spokesperson for our planet, I feel that my job has been done.
What role does Leica photography play in your life?
Leica is the epitome of what photography is all about. Leica is more than just a name; Leica is a statement. As a traditional company, Leica represents values such as integrity, loyalty, stability and leadership. I’m a person who stands for and lives by certain values, and I want to be an example for my son. With Leica, I have a partner with whom I can look into the future.
How was it to work with the SL2-S? What did you enjoy in particular?
I find the combination of film and photo outstanding. It has never been so easy to produce incredible video material, while also holding such a fast camera in my hands. Furthermore, the camera’s robustness was of great value in Africa. It often fell on the ground, during unintended braking manoeuvres… and nothing happened to it! The size of the sensor allows you to go into ISO ranges that would have been unthinkable in the past. The autofocus is phenomenal and, combined with the Leica lenses, the SL2-S is a very convincing camera.
In what way has this camera system influenced/lightened your work?
Thanks to its dependability, under unimaginable conditions of dust, heat and humidity, the SL2-S system has earned my complete trust. The built-in microphone allows me to take video recordings with sound, and without much hassle.
You can look back over an impressive portfolio. What does photography currently mean for you, specifically?
With photography, it’s possible for me to make the invisible visible. I think that you can only begin to love that which you see – and what you love you also want to protect. As a biologist focussing on wild animals, it’s my goal to use photography as a tool for the protection of nature. This can’t be achieved without education; so I’ve decided to send 10 per cent of my income back into the countries where I have taken photographs. I now support a children’s hospital and an orphanage long-term, and I’ll soon be building two schools in Botswana. Above all, children must have the chance and the right to an education, and to basic food and protection. I’m convinced that without school education and the support of the communities in Africa, any kind of nature protection has no chance of lasting success.
Photography allows me to realise my goals and projects. It is also my community, it’s the people who acquire my pictures, who come on my photo safaris, who support me: they complete the whole picture.
Are there places you absolutely want to go to, or projects you want to do?
So far I’ve avoided colder regions. However, I’ll soon have a chance to travel to the Arctic and the Antarctic. The immediate projects in my future are photography workshops with the Leica Academy in Austria, and an international photo safari in Kenya.
Marc Stickler was born in Austria, and was raised as a happy child in the town of Salzburg. His first adventure was backpacking through Thailand with his mother at the age of 6. Impressed by new cultures, monkeys and being the centre of attention in Asia, due to his very blond hair, Marc got the travel bug at an early age. After one year of travelling abroad as a young man, his passion shifted from initially studying Philosophy and German Literature to studying Biology. Projects, covering sharks in The Bahamas and mountain gorillas in Uganda, soon followed. For his final thesis, he spent a year at the German Primate Center, under the supervision of Julia Fischer. He travelled into the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, where he studied the social mechanisms of female chacma baboons. He discovered his passion for photography while studying. Later on, he became a Leica Akademie Ambassador. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.